Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, September 18, 2015

2015 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview

Growing up a Chicago White Sox fan, disparaging news stories about fan attendance were as common place as deep dish pizza and hot dogs without ketchup.  If you can dream the angle up, Chicago sports writers used it to talk the sorry state of butts-in-seats on the South Side.  Stories about how many more fans come to see the Cubs, stories about how 'rough' the neighborhood is, stories about how lagging attendance hurts team payroll, even stories about how the reflection off the empty seats during day games can affect the play on the field.  Ad nauseam doesn't even begin to cover it.

This is why, beyond some nominal teasing about 'well, we support our team,' and how dwindling attendance at the RMS in the late 2000s was an embarrassment to all involved, I don't go too deep into the numbers one way or the other.  Those lines reek of HAWT TAKE to me, and hit a little too close to home.

Then comes this tweet:
... I just can't resist chasing the rabbit on this one.

Now don't worry, this is not about the CSU figure, because it is what it is.  This is about those 30% of CU season ticket holders reserving their right to boycott the trip to Denver.  That's 30% of donors saying 'hell no' to the Invesco trip (or whatever it's called now), a chorus which is loud enough for any AD in the country to hear. Is there any wonder why this series is ending in a few years?

Certainly, there are some underlying factors in that figure.  Scalpers and ticket agencies may see a few extra units of Oregon tickets as a better profit-making engine than upper-tank rotten eggs to the RMS.  Some of that 30% could also, just as easily, get more seats for a game in Boulder, and then buy their Denver seats separately.  Regardless, the fact remains that CU fans are voting with their wallets, and a sizable minority - and many more non-season ticket holders (like myself) in addition - are voting 'absolutely not.' With numbers like that, this series is as dead as a door nail, not to be seen again for some time after 2020.


Hype music for the week: "Turn Down for What" by DJ Snake and Lil John

Why?  Why would I subject you to the abject horror that is this song?  Well, because it's just as fucking annoying as this series  They were made for each other!  'Happy' RMS week!


The *sigh* 87th edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown kicks off from *sigh* Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 5pm on Saturday.  Follow the action CBS Sports Network or 850 KOA if you're not going to be in Denver (like me!).

For reference, you can find my previews from previous iterations of this series herehereherehere, and here.

Click bel...

*record scratch*

Last year, in a fit of childish petulance, I refused to preview them prior to the RMS, instead focusing on our beloved Buffs.  It was cute, but otherwise pointless.  A one-off joke, if you will.  So I meant to give little brother the full preview treatment today, I really did.

However, my roommate Alan stepped into the room right as I was starting to pen the article Monday night. Upon hearing the topic, he spat "why would we need to waste our time on that blight on humanity?  'But what about their new coach," I asked.  "Fuck 'em; I don't know why I'm supposed to care about that."

Fair enough.  Fuck 'em, indeed.

Without further adieu, I present my two-weeks-too-late preview of the 2015 Colorado Buffaloes, and only the 2015 Colorado Buffaloes.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

We last saw the Colorado Buffaloes take the field... last Saturday!  They even won!  In convincing fashion, too.  Since this ground has already been covered in this week's grab bag, let's recap what happened the last time CU traveled down to the Mile High City.

Like an engine with a dying battery, the Colorado Buffaloes came out of the gate with a start, but were unable to hold a charge throughout their faltering performance in the 86th Rocky Mountain Showdown. What had began with a quick lead and all the momentum in the world faded away into the somber reality of a 31-17 defeat that wasn't even that close.

The primary culprit was the defensive line. Under-sized and given little relief from a linebacking corps under siege at the second level, the Buffs allowed 266 yards of rushing (at nearly six yards an attempt) against an offensive line that returned zero starters from the previous season.  On every snap they were on their heels getting pushed backwards, each retreat chipping away at any hope of overall victory.
The Buffs were gashed on the ground.  From: the BDC
Observing the obvious, the opponents proceeded to call more and more running plays (66% in all) as the game went on, lending no relief to the weary and bedraggled line in the second half.  Then came the flood of points; 24 unanswered from the middle of the third quarter on.  It wasn't over-aggressiveness that burned the defensive front (only two tackles for loss and two QB hurries recorded), they were just getting whupped off the line.

Even still, CU had an early opportunity to survive the eventual onslaught, but failed to press their advantages. Already up 7-0 (thanks to a picture-perfect 54-yard strike from Sefo Liufau to Nelson Spruce; the first of 12 last year), the Buffs took the ball deep into opposing territory late in the 1st quarter, only to stall at the goal line and settle for a disquieting field goal attempt.  This seems to be the MO for Coach MacIntyre - take the points early, regardless of circumstance - but the Buffs lost a golden opportunity to go up two touchdowns in the game's opening minutes.
Early success soon turned into opportunity lost.  From: the BDC
Minutes later, CU would miss another field goal attempt, this time from 41-yards out, which is the exact moment I really started to worry.  Leaving points on the field, when the opponent is swimming for solid ground, has always struck me as begging for a counter attack, which is exactly what happened.  That missed field goal turned into the first opposing score of the game, flipping momentum on its head headed into the break.  Once out of halftime, it was clear which team had made the necessary adjustments (hint: not CU), and the rout was on.

The momentum appears to be towards a reversal of fortune this year, with Colorado seemingly the stronger team on the ground.  With the memories in the back of their mind of the slow, monotonous grind of rushing yards against them in 2014, I would bet on the Buffs looking to turn the tables, and pound the rock at every opportunity.   Whether they can be successful in that venture, and ultimately claim yet another RMS victory, remains to be seen.

The Buffs in 2015 - 

After two games, can you really say you understand this team, yet?  Sure, they've been running the ball well (302 yards per game, 9th in the country), but I don't see that holding up over 13 weeks, especially considering that the offensive line is already down a starter.  Through the air they've been anemic, but with a third-year QB and a preseason All-America wideout, I'm still expecting good things. The defense has, at times, looked pretty good, but the Pac-12 schedule looms, and we all know that can change in a hurry. Even the special teams, which has been an outright disaster for most of the 120-minutes of football played can boast a bright spot at place kicker.
1-1, and I still don't know what I'm watching. From: the Post
Essentially, what I'm trying to say, is that the jury is still out.  My preseason prediction was for five or six wins, and I'm still there.  The narrative of the young season remains to be crafted.

If I had to read the two games worth of tea leaves, and say at least one aspect of what we've seen will hold true, I'd lean towards the defense remaining effective.  Jim Leavitt has come to town on a mission of resuscitation, both for his career and for the CU defense, and instituted some immediate improvement. They're passing the eye test, back up into the top-60 teams statistically (which may not sound like much, but look back at last year...), and have solidly dictated the conversation through two weeks.  It was the defense that was keeping the Buffs in the game on the Islands, and it was the defense that came home to shut down what projects to be a really good passing attack last weekend.  There will be a regression in conference play, certainly, but overall improvement is evident.
Leavitt has changed the terms on the defensive side of the ball. From:
One thing that continues to frustrate, however, is special teams -- or, more precisely, the punting unit.  I know punting is far from sexy, and most would rather ignore it, if given the chance, but it has become a painful thorn in Colorado's side through two weeks. Behind freshman Alex Kinney (who may or may not be a mole), the Buffs are averaging less than 30 net yards per attempt.  That number is actually better than expected (the eye test is much worse), but only good enough for 117th nationally.  At this august institution that has produced so many really great punters, to be subjected to this is near criminal (where have you gone, Darragh O'Neill?!?!?!).  It's no better in return, where gunners are flying free, and the team as a whole is only grabbing about two yards per attempt.  Field position isn't just being lost here, it's being squandered on both sides of the ball.   Easily CU's weakest area, punting will continue to cost them games this season, just as it did in Week 1 against Hawai'i.

Star Players - 

I'mma start out on the edge with the Spruce Moose.  Nelson Spruce, with the accountant's name and playa's game, was a surprisingly dominant force throughout 2014.  Enough so that he earned recognition on a number of preseason All-America teams, including this second team mention in USA Today.  A terror in space and an exceptional athlete, the 6-1, 205 lbs senior from California is CU's single most dangerous offensive piece.
Nelson is professional caliber.
Opponents, as they are wont to do, caught on quickly to the fact that this kid is legit, and started blanketing Spruce more and more as the '14 season wore on.  He only caught two touchdowns after Week 5, and found space harder and harder to come by as the calendar pages flipped; overall results suffered in response. The biggest trick for 2015, week-in and week-out, will be coming up with ways to get him the ball, even as teams make him the #1 most targeted man in the West.  The more touches he has the better, and the more competitive Colorado will be in conference play.

It'll help in that effort to have the running corps continue their pace.  The quartet of junior Michael Adkins, senior Christian Powell, sophomore Phillip Lindsay, and freshman Patrick Carr have combined for almost 500 yards through two games, and give the team plenty of diverse looks to throw at an opponent.  Adkins has been especially impressive, averaging five yards per each of his 41 attempts on the year, and scoring three times.  The promise he showed as a freshman and sophomore is just starting to blossom, and the 5-10, 200 lbs runner from San Diego may finally be the answer CU has been looking for in the backfield. Defenses now have to account for a true rushing threat, potentially opening up downfield opportunities for explosive options like Spruce.
Michael's got the moves! From: the AP
Of course, that means that junior QB Sefo Liufau will actually need to start looking past the first 15 yards in front of him.  I'm a little hard on Sefo, who has been under siege from aggressive pass rushes from the opening kickoff of the season, but I'm just not seeing the progression I would expect from a third-year QB enjoying the luxury of consistent playing time and coaching.  He's skittish in what pocket there is, more apt to tuck it an run than finish his progression, and has been much more effective as a runner this fall (2nd on the team in yardage) than as a passer.  He's got good weapons on the edge, and the offensive line hasn't been that bad, so I really just want him to take the step forward under pressure and deliver some strikes.  Leave the bulk of running to Adkins, et al.

On defense, it's hard not to notice the work being put in by sophomore hybrid end Derek McCartney. The legacy standout (grandson of the original Coach Mac) is making an impact this fall, leading the team in QB pressures, while collecting two tackles for loss (including a strip-sack).  Combined with the emergence of JuCo transfer Jordan Carrell in the interior of the line, the Buffs are in markedly better shape in the trenches than they were a year ago, even without Josh Tupou.
Derek has an Abe Wright-like nose for sacks. From: the BDC
The lead story on the other side of the ball, however, has been the emergence of former walk-on Ryan Moeller at safety.  The 6-1, 210 lbs Western Slope product has taken the team by storm, rising up the ranks past more heralded and veteran talents.  His key red zone interception last week was just further confirmation that he is a play maker, and one the defense can be built around going forward.  Along with fellow defensive backs Tedric Thompson and Chidobe Awuzie, the Buffs are far more dynamic in the backfield than in past years, and only getting more dangerous.

In the middle, Addison Gillam continues to recover from a series of injuries and concussions that sidelined him last fall.  Health remains a concern, possibly a very immediate one, but, when on the field, he still looms as the force that earned him Freshman All-America honors in 2013.  He can pair well with Kenneth Olugbode at the back of the the hybrid front seven.

Coaching - 

I was bemused the other day to find a discussion in the bowls of AllBuffs saying that Mike MacIntyre is coaching for his job this weekend.  Really?  I mean I know his all-time record in Boulder - now at a miserable 7-19 - is a trainwreck, and the much ballyhooed talk of a bowl trip this fall looks increasingly unlikely (told you so...), but I don't believe anything like another coaching search is called for.  What do you guys really expect?  If the road to the bottom of the canyon of crap was long, the road out isn't going to magically shorten just because we want it to.

You have to remember, the program Mac inherited was more in-line with what you would expect from a D-II school than a P-5.  Colorado, at the moment Jon Embree was fired, was incomprehensibly awful.  In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a program more adrift in their own surroundings that wasn't headed towards disbandment. When I used to say that we should 'bulldoze Folsom and become a baseball school,' I was only 95% kidding.
Gotta give the man credit, he's passionate about his work.
The point is, MacIntyre has done surprisingly well with what he's had.  I know, I know: 19 losses.  But the team is competitive, recruiting is starting to catch up, and the roster finally has some balance.  Further, who do you think CU would be able to attract, if MacIntyre was booted?  Mike Bohn had to overpay the head coach of San Jose State to take on the sinking ship.  I'm almost scared to think of who would be considered this time around, especially with so much money tied up in the new facilities.

Get over yourselves.  Mac's here, the team is improving (if slowly), and there's no reason to change course now.  No one ever likes losing in Denver, but jobs aren't on the line Saturday.

Prediction - 

My 2015 record: 1-1. Against the spread: 2-0. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -3 pts/gm
Line as of Wednesday @ 7pm - CU -3.5, O/U 57

While the defense has been better, the key overall really has been turnover margin.  112th in America last season, Colorado has rebounded early in 2015 (helped by the clean sheet against UMass) and are in positive territory for the year.  In Hawai'i, the Buffs caughed it up three times, played sloppy special teams, and never really got going.  Back in Boulder against the Minutemen, everything was much cleaner, and the happier result followed. For the Buffs to have any shot this weekend (and going forward), that trend has to continue, which includes the defense continuing to force the issue.

I'll say that the positive turnover juju continues in Denver, with CU capitalizing on an opponent that has coughed it up a shocking total of nine times in two games.  This is enough to overcome an overly conservative offensive game plan and another two achingly bad punts.

Give me the Buffs and the under.

CU 31 - little brother 17 (*cough*), a true reversal of last year's fortunes.


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